News Previews

10 Hours with Elite: Dangerous and the Xbox Game Preview Program

Written by James T. George

One of the most interesting announcements at Microsoft’s E3 press briefing last week was the start of their game preview program. When simplified to its core: the program is Microsoft’s own go at early access gaming, something Valve has had for some time now. If you’re so inclined, you can download a limited trial of an unfinished game that is participating in the program, and opt to buy it at a discount if you wish to keep it as it is worked on. Unlike other Xbox preview features you don’t have to be invited to participate, but instead find the game on the store and give it a go.

Historically, early access games have had their fair share of controversial. Like their PC counterparts, these games are not guaranteed to work, and may in fact never see the light of day. Development can stall, cease, and if you buy into an early version of the game, there is a risk it will vanish and never get finished despite you spending money on it. Personally, I’m not the biggest proponent of the concept. Something about the risks involved just don’t sit right with me, and I’m not sure the concept moving to consoles is the best thing for the gaming industry as a whole. Still, it’s here.

The only two games in the program at launch are Elite: Dangerous and The Long Dark. Because I was curious as to exactly how the program was going to work, I figured I’d give the demo of Elite: Dangerous a try. For those not familiar, Elite: Dangerous is a spaceflight simulator with a pretty massive premise: a 1:1 scale simulation of the Milky Way Galaxy. The game heavily emphasizes the MMO component, allowing you to fly anywhere and interact with anything (provided you have the fuel). You can become a trader, a soldier, a pirate, or an explorer, among other roles, and there is not much in the way of objectives for the most part. Originally a Kickstarter project to restart the franchise that started some years back, the game is currently in beta on PC and has seen a wide array of both praise and skepticism.


The trial that the early Xbox version provides allows you to play through the game’s large selection of tutorial missions. Even with that, the game has a steep learning curve, and the tutorials don’t actually spend much time teaching you much of anything. Instead, they are more like learning environments that invite you to practice the concept they aspire to teach, and conclude when you manage to pull it off. Everything from takeoff and landing (landing may possibly be the most difficult thing you’ll learn in this game), combat, plotting travel destinations, and inter-system cruising are all on the docket. They provide links to training videos that load up in the Xbox web browser, but I was so worried that if I bounced there to watch, the 1 hour time limit of the demo would still be counting down. So, like every gamer in the galaxy, I just dove in.

The first half hour or so was not fun at all. Without guidance even the tutorials are frustrating. How can I learn to take off If I don’t even know about docking permissions at at station? Or retracting my landing gear? What about getting from one planet to another? How do I even do that? Which of the scores of menus allows me to do that? How do I even make the jump to light speed? None of this is explained at all, and without a dedicated effort based on trial and error, you won’t figure it out. Hopefully the game is updated with some better guidance, otherwise getting people to play this game will be impossible.

I was pretty close to putting it down, but there was a happy accident with the game’s ability to remap the controls, and I finally pushed the right sequence of buttons during the lightspeed tutorial to make the ship jump between planets. The visuals of this sequence were astonishing. In moments, a gigantic burning star roared into view as I exited light speed. I’m not ashamed to say it took my breath away that first time. For the first time in ages I got the same feeling I had when I first watched the Millennium Falcon make the jump to Hyperspace. I was excited. I wanted to see it again.

At this point I felt that the real game that was hidden behind the price of admission was something I had to try to really get a larger grasp on the game. Playing tutorials was ok, but the exploration aspect of the game was not part of it aside from the same hyperspace jump over and over. I wanted to venture out into the billions of star systems the game holds. Despite my better judgement, I decided to buy the game after the demo expired. The game is priced at $30 for the preview program, but there was no indication as to the retail price once it is actually launched.

A few hours later, I was greatly enjoying what I was able to accomplish. It was a surreal experience… I started to play the more complicated tutorials and found more and more success. Each passing accomplishment painted a clearer picture of the potential this game has. I started flying around planets. Exploring asteroid fields. At one point, I got in a dogfight with a pirate in the icy rings of a huge gas giant (another very Star Wars-ish experience).


After 10+ hours of playtime in the last week, I can honestly say I’m ok with the money spent, despite some clear problems that need addressed. The game is still woefully unfinished. Lots of interface errors are to be found, most likely a result of the game still being ported to a console from a PC. The NPC quests seem to be tied to a server somewhere that failed to properly define them in the game, so I was unable to chose some to pursue.

Without this sort of guided direction early in the game, I wandered around space aimlessly for awhile, stopping to see some cool stellar sights but not really advancing my character that much. Money is not easy to make unless you progress your stats.. Combat, which was pretty solid in the tutorials, was not something I experienced until my seventh or eighth hour, because I simply didn’t know where to find someone to fight. The online component lags out a lot, so I resolved to play the game’s solo mode. Luckily, your pilot’s stats carry over to the online mode, and with a galaxy so vast, I’m assuming I didn’t miss much in the way of PvP.


The game really starts to shine when you master the following concepts: Taking off, plotting courses, arriving at your destination, and landing. If you can completely conquer those, you can start to experiment with things like quests, tradin, upgrading, and interacting with other pilots (both NPCs and other players). In order to accomplish most of that, I heavily modified the controller bindings to something more familiar to me, and after some false-starts in the buy/sell game, I started transporting goods and completing easy quests to build up my wallet.

I’m enjoying it quite a bit now. I actually find myself role-playing a bit while I go about the mundane tasks of being a trader. That said, the biggest problem I have with the game as it stands is the huge amount of time you spend waiting to arrive at destinations. Because of the scale of the galaxy, you will never see more than one or two percent of the worlds you can visit because it will quite literally take years to cross the map, even at the speed of light. Even worse, when you’re traveling between planets and space stations within a star system, it can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes to successfully navigate. Go to fast during interplanetary travel and you’ll overshoot your target, and you have to nail an annoying distance/speed target window to actually enter the local space of your target successfully. Couple these annoyances with a quest system that will force you on long journeys to actually make decent cash, and I can see people falling into boredom quite quickly.

So now, after a decent amount of time with the game, I’ve decided to put it down for awhile. I still like it and plan on coming back later, but the game’s mechanics are somewhat prohibitive to me actually making progress in the game at a rate I find fulfilling. I want to amass more money quicker, so I can upgrade my ship to carry more cargo, have better functions, and be more well equipped to fight other players. I’d also like to see how the game changes when the online aspect is more stable and the population increases. I’m hopeful that the game will be updated to make these concerns less of an issue. Then again, it may not. Such is the risk with an early access game.

This game has a ton of potential, and despite being ready to step away from it for now, I’m satisfied with the money I spent to get experience I did. Overcoming the game’s massive turn-off of a learning curve felt good, and I was proud of myself for sticking with it when normally most people would never bother. Role-playing as a lonely pilot in a huge galaxy without limits is a game experience I’ve been waiting to play for a long time. This game gave me a taste, and while it may not be the thing that completely satisfies that itch, it’s a pretty good place to start.

Keep an eye on LevelSave.com for an eventual follow-up to Elite: Dangerous and the Xbox Game Preview Program. Both the game and the program are sure to change in many ways as it evolves, and I’m excited to see how they improve (or ruin) the experience of trying and buying games in the future.

About the author

James T. George

Jim, a proud native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, enjoys a variety of things other than games, movies, music, sports, and technology, but usually falls prey to character limits when filling out

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